Editors at Oxford University Press showed admirable restraint when they gave the 2011 book “Mushroom” its title. Surely someone at the table had wanted to add a subtitle, “Mushroom—a Natural History”, or some other way to codify Nicholas P. Money’s brilliant account of how the mushroom has challenged understanding and inspired imagination for centuries.
The word can evoke fear or delight, superstition or science. It makes some people recoil, while others salivate. The fruiting bodies of giant, hidden organisms, mushrooms appear as if by magic, so it’s understandable we often approach them with some level of mysticism.
At its core, “Mushroom” is an excellent natural history, but it’s much more. Author Money is a mycologist and a professor at Ohio’s Miami University, but he embraces the lore and legend of the mushroom as much as the science.
“Like no other species, the strangeness of fungi survives the loss of innocence about the limits of nature,” Money writes in the opening chapter. “They trump the supernatural, their magic intensifying as we learn more about them.”
As Money describes the mushroom’s mechanics, it does seem like magic. From its phallic hydraulic growth to its unimaginably fecund reproductive strategy, the mushroom doesn’t look any less fantastic under academic scrutiny than when it pops up overnight in your lawn.
To be sure, the book shoots down some myths. After describing the phenomenon that creates circular patterns of mushrooms with dying grass in the center, known as fairy rings, Money lists a few past theories, including circles scorched by dragon’s breath.
While most people are pretty comfortable with slaying dragon myths, Money may be treading on more sacred ground for some readers with his skepticism over medicinal claims of mushroom marketers, including the Pacific Northwest’s venerable Fungi Perfecti. Still, the author shows deep respect for his fellow mycology enthusiasts (except Andrew Weil, who takes a drubbing).
Of course, that’s not the only place the Pacific Northwest shows up. This book attempts, in 175 pages, to cover much of the historic relationship between people and mushrooms, and that would be hard to do (in our Eurocentric, western-hemisphere scope, anyway) without talking about the thousands of tons—worth tens of millions of dollar—of wild mushrooms that are commercially harvested in this corner of the country every year.
Ultimately, no random sampling of content can do this book justice. In a very short space, Money offers a fungus primer which would probably earn you an “A” in mycology (if you can retain all of the details of biology, chemistry and engineering) as well as a fascinating history of our relationship to this remarkable life form.
Money’s voice sounds so much like a very personable and competent professor, it seems a safe bet that signing up for his introductory mycology class would be a great move for any mushroom enthusiast who happens to live near Miami University. For the rest of us, a slow and patient read of “Mushroom” offers some deep insights into our connection to fungi.